In 1998, working as a bookstore manager of a rather large seminary, I was surprised to discover that very few of the school's professors would respond to my e-mail. They all had accounts, of course, but when it came to actually checking the inbox, only a handful even seemed to know how -- and only of a few of that handful cared to do so. You are not surprised by this. Professors are often a considered a stodgy bunch.

That was nearly 15 years ago, and not only have a new generation of professors joined the ranks, but the driving forces that have changed the way we do business have streamlined seminary back offices as well. (When staff is wholly given over to digital communications, faculty has to jump on board.) And the role of technology in schools has grown considerably beyond e-mail and scheduling.

Nowadays, even the most basic school has a computer network. Students can often register online, hand in assignments via e-mail, or engage in online classroom discussions. More than ever, even off-campus students are using digital tools to participate in seminary life. So what does the faculty make of all this change? Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group conducted two surveys to answer that question. The results were published this past summer: "Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, June 2012" and "Digital Faculty: Professors and Technology, August 2012." 

Both reports can be downloaded here, and both are worth reading. Since it is the faculty on the front line of education, their thoughts on digital learning are important.

The first survey was more of an opinion piece -- it asked faculty and administrators how they feel about the future of online education. Do they value it enough to recommend an online class to their students? How does online education compare to face-to-face education? The second survey examined how technology is being used. Are teachers using e-books? Are they rewarded for contributing to digital pedagogy?

Many of the results are predictable. Administrators, for example, are much more excited by the future of online education than are professors. (Interestingly, male professors are slightly more excited than their male colleagues.) The majority of professors feel the quality of online education is inferior to face-to-face education. Professors don’t feel their schools reward contributions made to digital pedagogy, and two-thirds of them have never published digital scholarship.

For seminaries these results may be less important. Large universities have spawned an entire industry working to create ways to integrate technology in the classroom. Textbook companies sponsor clicker technology, which allows a professor to interact productively with a classroom of 500 students. Textbooks themselves are packaged with websites and can easily be integrated with BlackBoard and other software services. That's a lot of resources knocking on the door.

There’s money to be made in "BIO 101: Intro to Biology," but much less to be made in "CH 409: An Assessment of Martin Luther." Yet technology seems to be knocking on every door these days. Many seminaries have embraced the trend. Not only are classroom management and assessment tools becoming common, many schools are expanding their offerings of online classes, hoping to attract long-distance students.

Divinity school is not just about preparing minds. There’s a strong spiritual component. In Trust has published on the question of online spiritual formation. It seems feasible, but more than ever the new context requires faculty buy-in. The reports from Inside Higher Ed paint an interesting picture of higher education, but seminaries have their own cultures and attitudes.

What do your school’s professors make of these trends?

Image by BTO Educational